Search This Blog

Saturday, July 5, 2014

In Defense of the Maligned- Part II, Oriental Adventures

(Part I of this two-parter is here covering the Unearthed Arcana.) Much like Part I this is not a review of the product itself but more of a high level discussion around particulars of the time, and the how and why it came about.

The biggest gripe that makes me shake my head? "It's too much Shōgun and not enough Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon!" Usually a lot of the ire also revolves around some of the things that OA featured, namely non-weapon proficiencies. As we all know,  NWP "non-weapon proficiencies" were included because those things are from the spawn of Satan and any game that has them can't be good, more on that below.

Did it ever occur to these self same people that some people  actually like Shōgun ? Consider the time frame, James Clavell had written Shogun in the 1975 and the miniseries was out in the early 80s. Certainly it was in the national consciousness and it was a contemporary of Dungeons and Dragons. It seems natural to me that Oriental Adventurers would come about.

Before I get going, on a completely random note, I really like the cover of the book. Samurai, ninja, a Japan/Nippon style castle in the background, pastel colors invoking the utter east? Damn skippy. Pack it with Samurai riding a foo creature? Good to go.

Oriental Adventures (at least to me) was part of the "ninja craze" that gripped the USA in the middle 1980s. There were awesome/bad movies like American Ninja, GI Joe had ninjas, Hell go back to the 1960s with James Bond and ninjas show up in "You Only Live Twice". Point being that the inclusion of was building long before the publication of Oriental Adventurers. Couple that with the point above about Shogun? Works for me.

Now onto some of the particulars about OA which aren't really in dispute:
  1. Oriental Adventurers was started as an idea by Gary Gygax and François Marcela-Froideval. Apparently Francois' manuscript was about 30 pages double spaced... obviously that's not enough to fill a major hard cover book.
  2. Gary turned to Zeb Cook to make a deadline 4 months later.
  3. Given that TSR needed to get hardcovers out based on their financial position being shaky due to mismanagement by the Blumes. Thus the book getting out was critical.
  4. Gary was tied up with the fight with the Blumes hence him tapping Zeb to finish the product. 
  5. Cook did the work.
After that Oriental Adventurers is a sordid as a soap opera. Note Gary's name.. this is hardly a revelation, but it doesn't say "By Gary Gygax". There is a whole twisted tale here that outlines Mike Berrault who worked with Zeb regarding the situation of 2nd edition and touches on the timing of Oriental Adventures. Warning, its long and a log of grognardiness. It also shows some interesting tidbits regarding the maneuvering by Gary to regain copyright.

Then there is the whole angle of Gary's distaste for the product after the fact and after he had left TSR. I'm not going to delve into Gary's musings, but the legend of François Marcela-Froideval "Lost Manuscript" just wont seem to die it. There seems to be a faction of people that believes this lost piece of gamer's lore as it was originally presented is "the holy grail, the font of knowledge, etc". (I'm aware of the samurai class as presented by François exists but not much more past that). With no slight intended to Mr Marcela-Froideval if it had been up to par in Gary's estimation then how come there wasn't more? How come it didn't form the book? Partisans to either side will point to saying the others side is self serving in this point of contention: just how much there was to become an actual rule book. By Cook's estimation there wasn't nearly enough. In absence of any evidence to the contrary thats where it stands. The burden isn't on Zeb's work to prove it doesn't belong; it actually got produced. The burden of proof is on those that believe that François work was/would have been better.

Another angle to consider is look at Zeb's output compared to François. François was and is apparently still active in the realm of comic books/graphic novels. I have no objection to that. In the realm of  gaming, Zeb had a lot more output of gaming material and depending on which side of the partisan divide one is on, the quality of it. For me Zeb's place is assured, 2nd edition AD&D is excellent and he produced such stuff as X1- Isle of Dread, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, BH2: Lost Conquistador Mine, Planescape and many more. Usually the objections I hear are a lot of his stuff is uneven, again depending on which side of the divide. Irioncailly the works of his that garner the most praise in old school gamer circles (I2) is one of the things I like the least. And in newer circles Planescape garners a lot of praise but again is not my favorite.

Looking at the quandary objectively and using Gary's own words from Tim Cask's Q&A thread over at dragonsfoot: "I have nothing to add save to state that I stand on my creative works, and Mr. Arneson can do the same." Applying that same logic: lets take Zeb's work and compare it to François in the context of AD&D. If François OA was indeed superior, would it not have made the light of day by now? Or put another way put Zeb's output compared to François, its not even close. Again, I'll reiterate I don't know either: I never got a chance to converse with Zeb before the rabid neckbeards ran him off from Dragonsfoot and have never corresponded with François. I am however interesting in slaying this zombie as it keeps staggering to life. I should also note that I am not implying some rivalry between Zeb and François. I have no knowledge of that time frames nor do I claim to. Basically I'm looking at the scant evidence presented and making logical inferences.

Gary is a somewhat unreliable source in all of this as well as his statements are not consistent as over the years, again nothing is implied here. We are human and memories fade let alone vary. Add to the fact that Zeb was the lead designer of 2nd edition and he didn't follow Gary after he left TSR? I'm sure there was some bad feelings on Gary's side in regards to Zeb. Prior to Gary leaving there seems to be some affection for Zeb, afterwards it ended. From what I've read about Zeb it seems clear, he was aware of his own failings took criticism whether deserved or not and did the best he could. Seems to me he handled the situation with dignity and class in the face of unreasoning hate to something he tried his very best to do. And for the abuse hurled at him from around the web? Ridiculous.

So what am I trying to say? Just like 2nd edition itself people attract all sorts of crap to the rules of OA and by extension to Zeb that have everything to do with defending Gary and nothing to do with the rules therein or Zeb as a game designer/writer. What does that sound like? (Yes I'm repeating myself): 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons as a whole. OA fits into that era to a degree, its a late 1st edition product. And much like I alluded to in Part I it also points the way that Gary may very well have been going in regards to his version of 2nd edition. 

Now on the negative side I can see how people object as the land mass (which predates the inclusion of the Forgotten Realms) being more China inspired, yet the rules being more in line with Japan. This is a fair point. By the flip side of it the Kara-Tur box set does detail the mysterious orient well and
expands the lands in far greater detail. Taken by just the book its a fair point perhaps, but stuff does not exist in a vacuum. Added to this if need be the OA has enough details that the Kara-Tur box set isn't exactly needed.

NWP- non-weapon proficiencies are an area of the game that were badly needed, and with its inclusion along with the ones in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide and and the Wilderness Survival guide point the way forward.

Now to run a counter line of my own thinking and tangentially related, perhaps adventuring in Wa is too boring. After all, it models feudal Japan after Tokugawa united the land following the turmoil of the 1400s. In a way its too orderly with not enough action and fighting going. Strangely enough this is mirrored in the Forgotten Realms in the Kingdom of Cormyr. Cormyr is too orderly, to close nit that its well.. boring. Despite my like of 2nd edition I've never been a fan of adventuring in Cormyr: too many rules, to much law and the war wizards watching everything. While that sounds an awful lot like a very safe place to live, especially if you are a pseudo medieval peasant its an entirely boring place to be an adventurer. You even need adventuring licenses? Ugh. The best adventuring locals tend to be an area where law is the weakest, where the heroes are making their own way, whether on the frontier of the American West, borderlands with its eponymous Keep or something in between. So too for the utter East.

In summation I'll gladly take Shōgun, its what you make of it once you are presented with it that counts. 


  1. The Zeb hate is irrational, even insane. OA has plenty of good stuff, but also plenty of problems, but the time frame & overall fiasco it seems to have been created in is something Gygax, to his shame, seemed pathologically adverse to admitting to. There is much to praise & like Gygax for, but his handling of OA, Zeb Cook, and actual business practices & skills are NOT among them at all.

    1. Can't say that I disagree with any of that, good post!